“Stop the corporate coup!”
“We are stakeholders, too!”
These were the slogans of a rally outside Salt Lake City’s Grand American Hotel Tuesday, where about 120 people gathered to protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed trade agreement between the United States and 11 other countries.
While protesters marched through the rain, chanting and waving brightly colored signs, inside the hotel, negotiators met for the first time since WikiLeaks published a draft of the TPP’s chapter on intellectual property last week. In the leaked draft, US officials proposed strengthening and lengthening pharmaceutical patents while dismantling international laws designed to keep medicine affordable.
The negotiations, which have been in the works for several years and are expected to wrap up by the end of 2013, are closed to the public. But some 600 corporations, including Walmart and Monsanto, have been included in the deliberations as “trade advisors.” Global health advocates are calling the trade agreement an attack on public health.
“This is a horrible betrayal of the American promise of liberty, of equality, of a government that is not controlled by a tyranny of the few,” said former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who spoke at the rally. This is not, he declared to a whistling, cheering crowd, “a government of the people, by the people or for the people.”
The TPP has been the "cornerstone of the Obama Administration's economic policy in the Asia Pacific," and a press release by the White House stated that the 12 participating countries view the proposed agreement "as a model for future trade agreements and a promising pathway to our APEC goal of building a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific." An editorial in the New York Times argued the agreement could strengthen relations between the United States and its Asian allies.
But Tuesday's protest made it clear that many oppenents see TPP as very dangerous.
According to the leaked document, the United States is pushing to extend monopoly protection by stretching drug patent terms from 20 years to at least 25 years. The proposal would also allowing pharmaceutical companies to patent new formulations of existing medicines, a process called “evergreening,” which draws out the number of years a company maintains exclusive rights to a drug.
“When the patent runs down, you just turn a liquid gel cap into a heat stable tablet and you hold on to your monopoly,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Global Access to Medicines program, in a phone interview. “There’s no competition, so the prices are sky high.”
If instituted as proposed, the TPP would further hamper the development of competition by prohibiting authorities from approving generic medicines until after patents have expired, he said. Even then, the agreement would prevent drug safety regulators from using clinical data to get market approval for generic drugs.
Global access to medicine relies, in large part, on the development of affordable generics, Maybarduk said. For example, before the development of generic antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, treatment cost $10,000 per person, per year. It was a crippling price tag for anyone, he said, but for people living in low- and middle-income countries, “a diagnosis was a death sentence.”
Now that generic drugs have introduced competition into the market, the cost of treatment has dropped to less than $100 per person annually. The price reduction has enabled publicly funded programs like the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS relief, founded under the Bush administration, to support care for more than 10 million people. Eighty percent of the antiretroviral medicines used in developing countries are generic drugs produced in India.
Current global agreements, established by the World Trade Organization in 1995, establish patent monopolies for pharmaceutical products, but also include legal safeguards that empower poor countries, where high costs may bar sick people from getting medicine, to develop cheaper alternatives. Some countries, like India, have outlawed “evergreening.” If passed, the TPP would overturn these protections.
“This proposal will raise drug prices and keep medicines unaffordable and out of reach,” Maybarduk said. “If it’s instituted, it will most certainly lead to preventable suffering and death.”
Outside The Grand American Hotel, protesters stood beneath two mammoth banners that read, “We the People” vs. “We the Corporations.” The crowd chanted, “Flush the TPP! Flush the TPP!”
Amidst the hubbub, two men wrapped in nondescript trench coats slipped out the front door of the Grand America. They kept their eyes fixed on the ground as they headed for the street, keeping their distance from the crowd.
Fists raised to the air, most carried on with their chanting. But Tami Canal, a 31-year-old Salt Lake City resident who came to the rally with her two children, spotted the men.
“Hey!” she called, grabbing her 7-year-old’s hand and heading after the two officials with the stroller carrying her 2-year-old. Her hand-made protest signs flapped in the wind as she ran, blonde hair bouncing against her shoulders.
“Hey! Are you negotiators working on the TPP?”
Her only answer was the sharp smack of the men’s dress shoes on the rain-soaked sidewalk as they hurried away.
“There are more of us outside this building than inside it,” she said. “I want to let them know we’re not going down without a fight.”
The medical humanitarian organization Medecins Sans Frontieres has called the TPP “the most harmful trade pact ever for access to medicines in developing countries.”
“This is a game changer for anyone who provides medical care in the developing world,” said Judit Rius, the US manager of MSF’s access to medicine campaign.
The proposed patent laws threaten to unravel some of the progress made against some infectious diseases, Rius said. In their clinics, for example, MSF has observed a rise in resistance to antiretroviral drugs.
“When patients develop resistance to the first line of treatment, they have to be moved to new, stronger products,” she said. “Most of these medicines are protected by patents and there is no generic competition.”
Even among negotiators, the United States’ position is unpopular. Five countries, including Chile, Malaysia and Singapore, have banded together to write up a counter-proposal that maintains the international standards set by the World Trade Organization.
“We want to show there is opposition to this within the US, so delegates from other countries can feel emboldened to stop being bullied,” said Eric Ross, who helped organize the rally as part of the Backbone Campaign, an organization that provides strategic training and tactical tools to activists.
"We don’t want a kinder, gentler, friendlier trade agreement,” he said. “Really, we just have to stop this outright.”
For the crowd in Salt Lake City, the hush-hush of the negotiations was a particular sticking point. Even activists who follow the issue didn’t know the location of the negotiations until the last minute, said Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Washington, DC Citizens Trade Campaign. Still, protesters flew into Salt Lake from all over the United States for the rally.
“There is a reason that the TPP is so secretive,” he said. “And that’s because when people learn what is being proposed in our names they do what we are doing here today. They stand up and they say, ‘no.’”
Standing before the crowd, microphone in hand, Stamoulis led the crowd’s calls for change.
“There are people in this building who think that you’re not paying enough for healthcare,” he shouted. “They want to use the TPP to extend the life of drug patents. Are we going to let them do that?”
“No!” called the crowd in unison.